I’m a person who can appreciate the great diversity of squats in our world. High squats, low squats, front squats, back squats—they’re all beautiful. And yet, people on the internet love to argue about which squat is the best. So here’s a little guide to squat depth, and how to find the squat that’s right for you.
Before we start, I’d like to invite you to consider why you are squatting, because there may be a very easy answer here. Do you compete, or are you just trying to get stronger in whatever way works best for you?
If you’re a powerlifter
Powerlifters compete in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. If you do these three moves, it can benefit you to do them (at least sometimes) to competition standards. This way, if you decide you want to compete someday, you’ll already have the movement patterns memorized and you’ll know how strong you are in the exact competition lifts. For bench press, that means pausing at the chest. For squatting, it means you need to hit depth.
Check your federation’s rulebook, but usually the rule is that the crease of your hip needs to be lower than the top of your kneecap. Roughly, this corresponds to your thigh being parallel to the floor, and so people will describe this position as “parallel.” Here’s a video showing what this depth means, and how judges see it:
If you’re preparing to compete, your best bet is to ask your coach or a knowledgeable competitor to take a look at your squat.
Some powerlifters aim to squat just an inch below parallel. That means you’re not moving any more than you have to, and the extra inch gives you a bit of fudge room in case of harsh judging or imperfect positioning on your part. (Remember, there are no mirrors on the platform.)
Others prefer to squat as low as they comfortably can, and try to get a bounce out of the bottom of the squat. Greg Nuckols recommends this in his extensive guide on how to squat. The exact positioning here will depend on the size of your legs (some people’s thighs meet their calves earlier in the movement) and on where you feel comfortable.
If you’re a weightlifter
If you compete in weightlifting (the snatch and clean & jerk), nobody is judging your squat depth but you. Squats are an accessory lift in this sport, and they only exist to help you get stronger for your main lifts.
In general, weightlifters end up in a very low squat position during cleans and snatches, so they often do their squats deep to match. But that’s probably not necessary for building strength, and so there are plenty of weightlifters who will only squat to parallel or a bit below.
If you’re just training for strength
OK, so what if you don’t compete in any squat-centric sport? Here’s squatting’s dirty secret: then it doesn’t matter.
No squat police will come to arrest you if your squats are too high; however, some of your gym buddies may heckle you about it, because why aren’t you going deeper?
You can move more weight if you only do a partial squat, and every gym has people who will tell you about their huge squat PRs but then it turns out they weren’t getting anywhere near parallel. If you are cheating your squats so that you can brag about your numbers, you should swallow your ego and squat to parallel already.
Likewise, the squat police will not come for you if you squat extremely low (arse-to-grass, as they say)...but once a week or so, a stranger will tell you you’re going to ruin your knees squatting like that. You may ignore them. Low squats aren’t inherently bad for your knees, so if you feel fine, you can keep on keepin’ on. We discuss this myth at length in our guide to squats.
That said, if you don’t like squatting low, but you do it because somebody told you you “should,” feel free to ditch that advice and squat to the level you prefer. Squatting arse-to-grass does not make you a better person.
If you can’t squat as deep as you like
Often people ask about squat depth because they want to squat deeper, but have trouble making that happen.
Ankle mobility is often the problem. Squatting requires our ankles to flex so that our feet can stay flat on the floor. If your heels come off the floor as you approach depth, you may need to address your ankle situation.
An easy fix is to elevate your heels. Weightlifting shoes, with a solid heel, exist specifically for this. They’ll help you stay stable (much more so than running shoes) and keep your heels high enough that you may be able to hit your preferred positioning no problem.
Another trick is to put some weight plates on the floor, and prop your heels up on those. I don’t like this for heavy squats, since you’ll have to step into place with a heavy bar on your back, and that feels unstable to me. But some people swear by this trick, so give it a try (with light weights, at first) if you think it might work for you.
You can also work on ankle mobility over time by stretching and foam rolling. And try different stance widths and different types of squats (front squats, goblet squats, high bar, low bar) to see if some are more comfortable for you than others.